Stolen Art

Simon Backès

Canada 2009, 58min.

EARLY THIS SUMMER the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival ran for the 12th year in a row, featuring 266 public screenings and showcasing over 170 distinguished Canadian and international documentaries for 11 days in Toronto cinemas. This latest edition marked the festival’s most successful year, as audience numbers soared to an estimated 122,000, almost twice as many as last year.

This year Hot Docs continued their new section, called NEXT, as part of their diverse documentary program. This featured a selection of documentaries that explore the creative process in the visual arts, opening up a space of mystery and obscenity – from the sleazy sex clubs of Japan to Internet bondage, from artful advertising and a fraudulent exhibition to musical tours and hidden sonic treasures.

WHO OWNS ART? The artist or the beholder? Is something more beautiful when shared collectively? And if reappropriated, lost or found, does the intention or the spirit change?

These comprise the central questions examined in two of the documentaries that screened in NEXT: Simon Backès’ Stolen Art and Klaas Bense’s Diary of a Times Square Thief. Both of these films deals in their own way with the ambiguous identities of two artists whose work ends up in the hands of curious speculators.

Both directors, Backès and Bense, are on a detective’s mission to unveil the artists behind the work. In Stolen Art Backès explores the mystery that surrounded the New York art exhibition of that same title in 1978. The show exhibited works by a Czech painter, Pavel Novak, who crafted uncannily precise renditions of famous works by Courbet, Van Gogh, Malevich and Rembrandt. Soon a er the opening of Novak’s Stolen Art show, it was discovered that the Courbet reproduction of The Calm Sea was in fact the original. The FBI closed the exhibition and without another word uttered about Stolen Art, Pavel Novak – artist, outlaw, and brilliant forger – disappeared without a trace.

Backès’ film tracks several of the paintings listed in the Stolen Art catalogue to examine how Novak managed to reproduce such works at a distance. Was he possessed by the painter’s spirit – painting from memory and fragments? Were the paintings in the galleries indeed the originals, or did Novak manage to make a switch?

Everyone should have a masterpiece.

Through Backès’ interviews with museum owners and specialists, two consistent points emerge: firstly, no one is very familiar with the Novak scandal, and no one wishes to discuss it, and secondly, reproduced art is without spiritual connection.

This stance is eloquently challenged by an art dealer: “Buying a fake is buying a dream” he says. “Why should there be only one? Lets make thousands – everyone should have a masterpiece.”

The only person who actually knows Pavel Novak, is an artist and critic called Karel Michalik, who once penned an infamous essay On Reappropriation which urges the reader “to seize beauty wherever you nd it and redistribute it for everyone to enjoy.” Michalik is apparently an old friend and intellectual accomplice of Novak’s, and he argues that there should be two heads to an artist – one to create theory, the other to actually make the work. It seems that Novak worked within these parameters. “True art is illegal,” he is quoted as saying, “redene your rules, reappropriation is a rule.”

Towards the end of the film, during a sea-side interview with Michalik, Backès dares to question Novak’s fraudulent tactics as a thief of style or a real thief, and to question his existence as a once-living person or as an art persona. “ The question is not who created what but who created whom?” says Backès to Michalik, before boldly proposing that Michalik himself created Novak out of thin air. Perhaps to cause controversy? To get away with fraud? To prove a point about original art? “ The original is already there, in the back of the retina of the eye,” says Michalik, “and on that beauty there is no copyright.”

DIRECTOR KLAAS BENSE learned a similar lesson about art and copyright in his newest documentary, Diary of a Times Square Thief. At the start of the film we watch the filmmaker purchase a paperback journal on EBay. The film follows Bense’s journey to New York City to find the mysterious author. At the start of the film the premise feels slightly forced – with the director purposely looking for his next documentary subject, purchasing the most obscure item online, and tracing its path backwards.

Aspirations of becoming the next William Burroughs

Once in New York, however, Bense juggles themes of regret and fated human connection and weaves a delicate and thoughtful web of characters. Through the collaged and scribbled pages of the notebook, he deciphers its author, an inspiring writer named John who had moved to New York in the 1980’s with the aspiration of becoming the next William Burroughs. Instead he lands a job as a desk clerk in the Times Square Hotel, home to the broken characters he describes in his journal – the poor and elderly, the crack heads and the whores. Between John’s vulgar tales of drugs, thieving, women, death and suicide, he pastes Polaroid pictures of those who lived in or frequented the squalor.

It’s the pictures that form the mission for Bense, as he tracks down those who are featured in John’s journal. Yet five days before shooting was to begin, Bense explains that all his initial characters backed out, leaving him in New York with a mysterious notebook and not a single subject. Eventually a handful did make their way into the film, but they were not so easy to convince. “I had a real di culty establishing a rapport with my interview subjects,” says Bense, “simply because I was only interested in talking about the worst part of their lives.” Yet he does manage delicately to extract their memories and dreams and we soon witness their shy delight when they realize they are the meaningful plot points in his mystery.

When Bense is at last united with John through an old bartending friend, the filmmaker does not find what he had first assumed – “a decrepit old man living in a cardboard box,” he admits with some embarrassment. Contrary to the dark poetic style of the journal, John is sensitive, eloquent, and clean-cut, and he holds a full-time job while completing a Masters degree. Though rather attered that a filmmaker would think of taking such an interest in his discarded past, John is at peace with himself and not interested in romanticising his past life or artistic ambitions. “You remember more than I’ve forgotten,” he laughs.

Remembering the past is what inspires reap-propriation. With both of their films, Backès and Bense give us work that has reproduced the essence of one man’s history into a documented artistic journey.